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February 2000

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 James G. Blaine: Architect of Empire
By Edward P. Crapol
(Wilmington, Delaware: SR Books, 2000. Pp. xx, 157.
$50 cloth; $17.95 paper.)


The Forgotten
"Plumed Knight"

By Gene Schmiel

When the most respected biography of James G. Blaine was written in 1935, the author felt constrained to subtitle it: “A Political Idol of Other Days” even though it was less than forty-five years since Blaine’s death. Clearly, the American people had forgotten this former secretary of state by 1935. Significantly, more people today do not remember that the “Plumed Knight” was, as Professor Edward P. Crapol has documented effectively, a foreign policy visionary and a nineteenth century architect of twentieth century American world leadership.

Forgetfulness about great achievements in foreign affairs is not unusual in our country. Recently, the tenth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the harbinger of the end of the Soviet empire, passed with little public attention. The same was true last year for the 100th anniversary of the Spanish-American War, the event most Americans associate with their country entering, somewhat reluctantly, onto the world stage.

This general indifference toward America’s role in the world affairs reflects our traditional, deeply-rooted isolationism and indifference towards events overseas. The Cold War era was the proverbial exception proving the rule. Given that tradition, it probably should not be surprising that now, when the sole superpower has the potential to be a benevolent global politico-economic hegemon, there is little enthusiasm for external activism; witness the divisions over Kosovo.

The once-strongly-held belief that the United States was entirely disinterested in foreign affairs until 1898 has been disproved effectively in works by many distinguished scholars, including Crapol himself. In this new work, the author further underlines and proves the thesis that the “Gilded Age” was not one solely of “robber barons” and political corruption, but also of significant steps along the way toward world power. Crapol traces Blaine’s evolution from newspaper owner and editor in Maine with an interest in foreign affairs to major political leader, presidential candidate, and world statesman rivaling, and often besting, those of the day’s major powers—Britain and Germany. He argues that, unlike most of his contemporaries, Blaine understood the importance of American world leadership.

Focusing extensively on Blaine’s own writings and his many accomplishments as secretary of state (twice), the author sees his subject as the “most important late nineteenth-century architect of American empire. His blueprints laid out the design for an imperial structure that was in place at the opening of the twentieth century, and his ideas served as the intellectual groundwork and ideological justification for what became the American century.”

This was particularly true, as Crapol well documents, as regards Latin America, where Blaine was the first statesman to make “Pan-Americanism” an integral part of U.S. foreign policy. Ultimately, Crapol makes Blaine the internationalist visionary who transcends his reputation as a corrupt politician.

This monograph is part of a series, “Biographies in American Foreign Policy,” which was inaugurated by SR Books this year and currently includes works on Blaine, Thomas Jefferson, Dean Rusk, and John Foster Dulles. According to their series editor, Joseph A. Fry, they hope to “humanize and make more accessible those decisions and events that sometimes appear abstract or distant by viewing policy formation and implementation from the perspectives of influential participants.”

Crapol certainly achieved this objective; but his thesis that Blaine was the central architect of America’s emergence onto the world stage remains unproven. For example, the author admits that earlier expansionists, especially Henry Clay and William Seward, were not only Blaine’s inspiration but his mentors and had many of the same ideas before he did. Further, Crapol begrudgingly gives President Benjamin Harrison a share of the credit for setting the stage for empire during his administration from 1889-1893. One can only conclude that while Blaine was certainly one of the very few nineteenth century architects of international activism, there was no “first among equals” in the group.

Another problem is that Crapol might have given greater attention to the events of the period which provided the political, economic, and philosophical context for the rush towards empire. These include the burgeoning agricultural surpluses in search of new markets; the political impulse to match the mercantilist-imperialist foreign policies of the European powers; the philosophical underpinnings of imperialism and American/Anglo-Saxon expansionism provided by Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer; and the fact that by 1898, the U.S. economy was the largest in the world.

Undoubtedly, these shortcomings reflect the fact that the books in the series are by design limited in size, scope, and intended audience, and much had to be left unsaid. Within those constraints, Crapol has achieved much in highlighting the role of one of the more skillful and articulate architects of an emerging great power. The student who desires to understand fully the foundations of the American century must go further afield; but this work can be the first step in that journey.  bug

 


AuthorGene Schmiel is a retired U.S Foreign Service officer who received his Ph.D. in 19th century American history from Ohio State University. He and his wife Kathryn are co-authors of a collection of Foreign Service tales entitled Welcome Home: Who Are You? published by Aletheia Publications.

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